The duties and responsibilities of local authority officers

28 Nov

Taken verbatim from a District Auditor’s report on Portsmouth City Council when a  project it promised council tax payers would be “cost neutral” (construction of the Portsmouth Spinnaker building) actually cost them more than £5 million including legal fees (SIN underlining and italics):

A member of a local authority occupies a position of trust. He/she is one of those individuals entrusted by Parliament and the electorate with making decisions, and with deploying resources, contributed by others, to their best effect. As a person holding such a position of public trust, a member of a local authority has an obligation to act lawfully, carefully, reasonably and with a due regard to the interests of those required to fund the authority’s activities. That trust imposes a duty on a member to ensure that, so far as he/she reasonably can, the local authority of which he/she is an elected member acts reasonably and complies with the law.

21. Other than in those cases where arrangements have been made for an officer to discharge a local authority’s functions or where he/she has specific statutory tasks to perform, the job of an officer is to give advice to members and to the local authority, its executives, its committees and sub-committees and to other officers. It is also to carry out the local authority’s work under the direction and control of the authority, its executive, its committees and sub-committees and any other person to whom authority in that respect may have been properly delegated. Senior officers occupy a position of trust.

22. As was said in paragraph 6.135 of the “Report on the Conduct of Local Authority Business”, in their capacity as advisers, officers “are responsible for ensuring that the council and its committees are informed of the facts, the law and all other relevant considerations before they make decisions. They are also responsible for proposing, and advising on, policy options.” Officers called upon to provide information, to advise or to help formulate advice, owe a duty to discharge those responsibilities with reasonable care. This is a duty which they owe to the local authority as a whole, not to any political group which may for the time being constitute a majority. Failure to discharge this duty, for example by withholding or misrepresenting material information, is misconduct. It would be misconduct for an officer to remain silent or otherwise inactive if a failure to report or otherwise disclose information may prejudice the authority in whose interests he/she is required to act.

23. It is not part of the responsibility of any officer to do that which a majority or any other group of members or any individual member may prefer the local authority to do (save where that preference has been lawfully adopted as the policy of the local authority at a properly convened meeting or pursuant to the exercise of delegated authority) or to frame any information or advice that the officer may provide to members to facilitate the achievement of any such preference. He/she is not the servant or agent of such a group of members or of an individual member. An officer’s duty to provide information and advice is to be exercised impartially, independently of any member’s preference and in the interests of the local authority whose servant he/she is. An officer fails in his/her duty if he/she acts otherwise.

24. This is the background against which I have judged the conduct of members and officers in reaching my conclusions in this report.

 

 

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